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Poles Apart

An Artist Envisions a Future Built of Bamboo

May 07, 2000|Emily Young

For Stephen Glassman, the creative process means adapting an ancient natural resource and centuries-old Asian construction techniques to contemporary design in the Western world. As he likes to put it: "Bamboo is a hollow, round, irregular, resin-impregnated fibrous material, directly opposite the solid, rectilinear, machined units our building culture is based on. It offers a completely new foundation with which to approach space and structure." Translation: He fits round pegs into square holes.

Glassman, a Venice artist who has been working almost exclusively in bamboo for the past decade, crafts one-of-a-kind staircases, fences, bridges and other architectural and sculptural features for the landscape. "Due to its light weight and strength," he explains, "bamboo allows me to work freely and intuitively on an architectural scale. Each piece is unique, dependent on the bamboo, the space and the client." There was, for example, a Mandeville Canyon homeowner who wanted to navigate her steep slope safely. For her, Glassman created a staircase that tames the site without spoiling the view; he carved each of the cedar steps, pounded them into the hillside and added a simple railing of bamboo poles. When two art collectors in Brentwood requested a sculpture beside their pool, he combined split bamboo with glass, producing a larger-than-life koi hooked on a fishing line. And at rock singer Perry Farrell's home in Los Angeles, Glassman designed a footbridge of braided bamboo rope and tinted bamboo that enables Farrell to walk out of his dining room, over his swimming pool and into his personal bamboo grove. "I don't know why more people don't do this," Glassman says. "Swimming pools are great, but they can be so spatially inconvenient."

While most of Glassman's projects are hidden in residential backyards, a few can be glimpsed by passersby. At First Presbyterian Nursery School in Santa Monica, Glassman erected a free-form pavilion over the sandbox that looks like an abstract extension of a nearby tree. In a front yard on Beethoven Street in Mar Vista, the fence he designed consists of large timbers held in exquisite tension by bamboo stakes and Indonesian palm fiber. These and the other pieces are fashioned from locally grown bamboo that Glassman selects and cuts himself. "It's quite exciting that in an urban environment one can go to the 'forest' and harvest raw timbers," he says. "By harvesting my own, I can use a variety of species [Bambusa beecheyana, B. oldhamii, B. tuldoides, Phyllostachys aurea, P. bambusoides] with singular lengths of up to 60 feet. And I can take advantage of the natural bows, sweeps and arcs unique to bamboo."

Glassman recently completed a permanent bamboo-and-cement rotunda for the World Interfaith Council in New York City and this month will begin work in Arkansas on a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to convert a turn-of-the-century power plant into a public art park. But perhaps his most spectacular project is a bridge in Bali designed as part of an international conference on bamboo five years ago. A span of intricately intersecting curves assembled with traditional doweling and joinery, it stretches across the open sky like an invitation to Shangri-La. "I was asked to build this bridge over a sacred gorge to connect two villages," he says. "I worked with a structural engineer, and when I saw thousands of people crossing it, I felt such joy. It was very satisfying to see bamboo bringing people together."

In one way or another, Glassman has always been involved in the arts. Before settling in California, the New York native toured with a circus troupe that specialized in puppetry. He later helped Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg fabricate some of their work, collaborated with Jonathan Borofsky and eventually struck out on his own. But around New Year's 1993, most of Glassman's tools were stolen from his truck. With the handful of bamboo tools not taken, he began exploring the medium that he had first encountered in college when he helped a Japanese graduate student build a giant kite and was paid in bamboo. "I was turned on by how things can look delicate and be so strong," he says.

Used for ages in other parts of the world for housing, ships, musical instruments, even clothing, bamboo is more common in this country in the form of, say, rattan furniture and matchstick blinds. Glassman, who continues to attend workshops and exchange ideas with kite makers, architects, scientists and others from China, Vietnam and the Philippines, is convinced that America has seen only the tip of the bamboo iceberg. Currently he's refining a line of bamboo-and-concrete benches and studying ways to combine bamboo and glass into chandeliers. "Though bamboo is a material that dates back to the beginning of building history," he says, "its value to me is not as an antiquity but as a possibility."

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